Thursday, 26 February 2009

Return to Victorian Policing for the UK?

I was intrigued to read that the so-called 'think-tank' group, Reform is advising that the UK move back towards the police structure that Britain had in the Victorian era, well, really up to 1942 Defence (Amalgamation of Police Forces) Regulations for southern England and the 1946 Police Act for most of the rest of the UK, though not really completed until the 1964 Police Act. If we go back to the date for which I have best figures, coming from my work on the Great Unrest we find that in 1908 there were 197 police forces in England and Wales (plus 48 in Scotland where mergers began in 1930), primarily because many towns had separate forces to those of the counties around them. For example as well as the Kent County Constabulary there were separate forces, until 1942 in Dover, Folkstone, Maidstone, Margate, Ramsgate and Tunbridge Wells. Thus, a criminal could skip across seven jurisdictions without leaving the county. Back in 2006 the government attempted to take the 1942/6 and 1964 developments a stage further and combine the current 43 constabularies in England and Wales (Scotland now has 8 constabularies; Northern Ireland has always had only one) into 17 so-called 'super-forces' though this initiative failed primarily as people felt they would be too far from the central organisation of their police units.

Forming large regional groupings was trying to go into the opposite direction to what most trends in Britain have been doing certainly since the 1995-8 with the establishment of local government unitary authorities which fragmented a county like Berkshire into four pieces and the recreation of the tiny county of Rutland in 1997 which has only two small towns Oakham and Uppingham. I have often noted how the British cling to outdated, often impractical, elements because they have no pride in anything contemporary. This is why it is taking so long for imperial measurement to die out, despite the fact that nothing else has been taught in British state schools for over 35 years. The British like the quaint and the old fashioned in favour of anything larger or more efficient. Interestingly Reform argues that smaller forces are more efficient and wants to introduce an additional 52 constabularies, raising the number to 95, a figure not seen since the 1940s. They argue that senior police officers effectively form an oligarchy, so I think they imagine that having an additional 52 chief constables would widen the intake a bit.

Another interesting thing is their reference to the Metropolitan Constabulary as being de facto the national police force and rather than the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) formed in 2006, that the Metropolitan force should take on formal responsibility for tackling such things. Again this is no different really to the pattern of the early 20th century in which detection of serious crimes such as murder was often handled by someone sent down from Scotland Yard and for dealing with riots Metropolitan police were often sent in as the only other alternative was the Army.

I suggest Reform look back to the experiences of having numerous constabularies. One key problem was the small size of these forces. In 1911, some towns such as Tonypandy in Wales would only have eight policemen all told and Hull despite being a port and a large city only had 5 mounted police. Given that we are seeing cutbacks in constabularies in an effort to cut costs. The rural county of Dorset is shedding 50 police; next door Hampshire which contains the port cities of Portsmouth and Southampton is dropping 100, more suburban Surrey is reducing by 144, 80 from Gwent in Wales and 120 from County Durham. This follows on from the fact that 19 constabularies cut police numbers in 2008. Now, if you increase the number of forces by 120% then each force will have 45% of the police they had before. I know they will have smaller areas to police and I hope that Reform has divided up the country on a rational rather than nostalgic basis, but it would mean a lot of fragmentation. In addition, each new force will need a Chief Constable and deputies and all the staff associated with those roles, so the smaller forces will actually lead to fewer frontline police officers.

So, as in 1911 we will see a plethora of small forces and a return to the dependence on London to supply detectives and probably riot police too (which given police predictions of civil unrest this Summer in the wake of the recession, this is an issue to consider). In 1911 local forces were overwhelmed. Some were able to draw on deals they had made with other constabularies, such as Liverpool bringing in police from Leeds and Birmingham, but this leads to a very complex pattern of command. I have noted the reluctance of the British population to see their local forces merged with those of neighbouring areas, back in 1911, for example in Cardiff, middle class people turned out to assault Metropolitan police brought in to help control the rioting as though they were not involved in the strikes occurring at the time, they had a violent hostility to 'foreign' police being used in their city. It became typical for 'imported' police to remove their insignia that showed which constabulary they belonged to. I did wonder during the 1984-5 Miners' Strike if officers not wishing to be the focus of complaint was only part of the reason for them concealing their insignia or whether deep in police forces there was still this guidance about revealing the origin of imported police, as, during that strike, police were bussed in from all over the UK to strike areas.

I would be intrigued to see on what basis Reform feels smaller forces are more efficient. I would suggest that they pay at least some attention to the history of the forces in the UK before making these sweeping statements, which whilst in line with recent tendencies in this country towards parochialisation could cause real problems especially as we might be heading towards a period of unrest not unlike that of the 1910s and certainly resembling that of 1981-5.

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